The Assigned Reading

June 2, 2012

University education often prioritizes the interest and convenience of the professor over that of the student.  Overworked, underpaid, and readily discarded adjunct faculty members might strenuously disagree.  But their employment is derivative of the form designed by, and for the pleasure of, comfortably ensconced full professors.

One way in which higher education commonly prioritizes the interests of the professor is to begin with the assumption that students should be exposed, whenever possible, to cutting-edge developments within a given field.  That is, after all, the kind of information that seems interesting and sensible to the professor.  How could a good educator justify a form of instruction that would provide less than the latest information?

The problem with the cutting-edge approach is that it assumes the student is, or can quickly become, able and willing to read and take interest in publications that appeal to the professor.  The concept is, in essence, that the student will discover salutary absorption in the assigned readings just as soon as s/he becomes like the tenured academic.  This is a generally unrealistic, sometimes browbeating, and occasionally inhumane expectation.

Students are not always required to peruse the latest literature in its original language – in, that is, the verbiage published in peer-reviewed journals.  Instead, they often abosrb such material via that soporific known as the textbook.  A good textbook can be as condensed and valuable a reference work as the dictionary, and approximately as engaging.  Alternately, students may be assigned chapters from books by famous authors, so as to point toward putatively interesting ideas while minimizing the risk that the young learner will become undesirably fascinated with any such work, in an unscheduled detour that could persist for weeks on end.

Education of this nature is a hard slog.  In my many years as a student in higher education, I have learned that there is no subject too interesting to resist being converted, by the university, into an interminable exercise in tedium.  Those pupils who do survive such ordeals with an enduring excitement about the subject seem to be those who somehow discover that it is truly interesting, notwithstanding the impression generated by the professor and the readings.

This is not to deny that some professors, textbooks, and peer-reviewed articles do an excellent job of mirroring and even accentuating the appeal of learning about a given topic.  It is just that this does not seem to be an accurate description of most professors, readings, and courses.

As just suggested, books have the potential to fascinate readers, but at the price of requiring days, weeks, or even months to explore and ponder satisfactorily.  The point of an original book (as distinct from a derivative textbook) is precisely that the author has ample space to build a world in which the reader might like to wander.  This is true not only for novels, but also for good nonfiction.

Learning from a book can be a sprawling, open-ended enterprise.  In another post, I have provided an illustration of how even a brief text can stimulate a welter of thoughts and questions.  Derrida has been described as believing (correctly, it seems) that writing “always leads to more writing, and more, and still more” (Rorty, 2008, p. 105).  An editor will tend to want to prune it back, at the very time when a devotee may want to hear more – provided, that is, that the writing is written in terms s/he can understand.

What seems to be needed is a hybrid:  a kind of book writing that whets the appetite of the learner rather than ruining it.  That is, the flawless, scholarly translation of a classic book that could take months to master is not necessarily the same as the edition that an introductory reader will find most intriguing.  This is an argument, not for CliffsNotes, but rather for Squashed Philosophers and other, perhaps more engaging paraphrasings and condensations (e.g., my own restatement of Plato’s Republic).  The elaborations and complexities that excite a senior professor can easily be overkill for the undergraduate or even the graduate student.  Assigning a chapter rather than a book does not necessarily change the ratio of clarity to obscurity within a text; it just provides relief to the student who comes to understand, implicitly, that s/he is supposed to feel better when the onerous assignment is past.

There is a conceit, within contemporary higher education, that a professor has somehow “covered” a subject, or an author, when a certain number of pages have been assigned and in some sense glanced at for a certain amount of class time.  There is pressure to cover many subjects, and this tends to be the degree of attention they receive, with predictable effects upon students’ potential interest therein.

This post has suggested that sometimes less is more – that it may be more effective, at least in some fields and with some kinds of authors, to assign readings geared to students’ reading level, at a pace and in a direction compatible with their developing interests.  The concept is, in other words, that weak interest should be regarded, not as the student’s default mindset, but rather as an indication that the dictates of rote subject-covering have diverged from what students are inclined to learn, to remember, and to pursue in further detail later.  But as admitted at the outset, this approach to assigned readings is apt to diverge from convention and bureaucratic convenience.

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